Posted by Bryan Fischer
NCAA Vice President of Academic and Membership Affairs Kevin Lennon has been with the association for nearly 25 years and oversees a wide-ranging department that includes student-athlete reinstatement, compliance and other issues. He sat down with CBSSports.com to discuss several of the reforms that are currently making their way through the legislative process ahead of this week's meetings.
CBSSports.com: How did you wind up at the NCAA?
"I went to Harvard as an undergrad and played some varsity and club sports there. Then I came to work at the NCAA then I went to the Southwest Conference. I was actually the first guy hired by the Southwest Conference after SMU had their death penalty. That was an interesting time to be down there and see a culture that was very different. Spent a couple of years there and have been back at the NCAA ever since. I've been the vice president for nearly 13 years."
Any interesting stories from your SWC days?
"When Fred Jacoby became commissioner of the SWC, in his first meeting the coaches had him leave the room - the commissioner - so that they could do their draft. They were buying all the same guys so they realized, let's just be more organized. 'You need these two defensive tackles, you take them, we'll take him.' They literally had a draft board. Poor Fred had come from the Mid-American Conference down to that environment.
"I'm reminded that in light of all the challenges we have now - which are significant - there was a period of time where it was just a different era."
What's been the biggest change at the NCAA during your time there?
"I think the whole development of the compliance efforts has been significant. My sense is that every time you have major cases that are processed, it does send some shock waves through the membership and then there's a response. It's a little bit reactive. Particularly among the FBS programs, we've seen more energy and more effort put into rules compliance. I think that's helped change the culture to some extent.
"At the same time, I think you've had that academic reform wave. We have more coaches that are talking about academic success and those types of things. Over the last decade, those are kind of the two things that I've seen that have changed clearly from earlier."
You work with over 1,000 schools in three division, what are the difficulties you see at each level?
"Division III has their challenges. We go through this financial audit program that says you can't offer any athletic aid or factor it in to your packages and sure enough, there's some outliers. That speaks to me just in general about the competitive nature of athletics. Even in a place where you're not offering athletic scholarships, people want to win and they sometime cut some corners.
"Division II, in terms of life in the balance, have really done a nice job of saying you can have a high quality athletics program and still be acclimated as part of the regular student body. In Division I, you see why you fly across the country for a football game. The public's interests, the pressures surrounding the competitions, the influences on the student-athletes themselves, commercial issues, create just an interesting mix from a regulatory perspective. It's just pretty darn complex. We probably spend 98% of our time on it."
The Board of Directors has several major changes they'll look at this week, is there more change this year than ever before?
"Yes. I don't think you can look at the action items that are going in front of the board and not say this is a big deal. There are some big ticket items as I would describe them. I think there was some significant issues brought up under President (Myles) Brand but I look at between now and April as very significant. There are major things with respect to access to championships that will really get people's attention. The two-year college transfer stuff will make sure that whole community is better prepared and have a significant ripple effect.
"I'm excited about the new rules group I'm working with. We have a great opportunity to get the board to just re-write that (manual). We really want to identify what do we care most about at the NCAA. It's kind of hard to tell right now. It's usually thrown together and you don't know what the priority is. To a large extent, we've always said if the membership adopts the rules, they're all of equal importance. How do you say that is more important than that? I think we finally have some courage at the presidential level to say, 'You know what? This is more important, this is a principal of what we do."
Full cost of attendance is being talked about a lot but the $2,000 figure thrown out seems a bit arbitrary.
"Out of the blocks, there is some thought that you can always go up. I think that's something the NCAA does a pretty good job of. We'll use data to figure out if there's a lot of unmet need that tells us we'll need to go to $3,000 or $4,000. I think people will be willing to do that. Keep in mind that most people will get their Pell Grant on top of that and we're going to open up other non-athletic aid that a student can receive that won't count against their total. Then there's the special assistance fund money, we give out $35 million a year. It will be fascinating to take a needy student with the two grand and the Pell Grant and the student assistance and see just how much they got at the end of the year. We're trying to meet the unmet need and I think $2,000 is a reasonable place to start. The Board could say it needs to be $3,000 to start, that will be determined by them."
One of the presidential working groups is looking at cutting scholarships in football and men's basketball, what's the reasoning behind that?
"There's a really interesting idea that's developed out of that rules group in terms of building in incentives to get yourself back to the full allotment. Like the access to championships, where you must have a certain score to be eligible, how about you have a high enough APR you can get yourself back to 13 in men's basketball. The baseline could be lower but you incentivize by academic performance teams having their full allotment of scholarships. I think it's a great idea.
"If we look at the rules, we don't have any incentives that say go above minimums and you receive benefits. I like the idea and it's one that we'll take up in earnest, that's a powerful piece. If you're a poor performing team, you may play with 11. If you're a high academic team, you'll get 13. It's some competitive advantage for a team that does well academically. I think there's a fundamental issue that our membership is walking into that says, you want to be a Division I member? There is a minimum expectation as to what you need to be providing."
Some have suggested that there be a another division for big time FBS schools.
"I think the thought is that the tent is big enough under Division I to allow for this diversity of mission. Having said that, within the regulatory structure, we need to redefine competitive equity. Up to this point, it's been whatever the last member, in terms of resources or commitment - we can't allow others to do things that would hurt them competitively. We are really getting away from that. You'll see, out of this rules group, a redefinition of what fairness means and what opportunity means.
"All that will allow conferences to have more say in how they regulate themselves versus some others. That's something that we're openly examining. Cost of attendance is a perfect example, not everyone will be able to do that. In the past we would have said you can't go to two grand because this school can't do it. Now we'll say if you can do it, do it. We're maturing to some extent and allowing enough within the tent to not
stand in their way of improving the student-athlete experience."
How big is the NCAA manual in a year or two?
"We're marking it up. My thinking right now? I think you blow the thing up. While we may have a copy somewhere in the vault, the approach should be if you had to start with a new day, what would it be. I think you'll see outcome based principles, we may end up having eight of them. You can't recruit using a third-party, you need to deal directly with the young man or woman and their family. That's a principle, you violate it and you'll face significant penalties. You may have some operating bylaws underneath that.
"I'll give you one example. One bylaw we have we've gone from 13 pages to four in the first cut. (The manual) will be significantly reduced."
Has there been a wake up call at the NCAA?
"It does seem like we had a lot of things happen this past year, there's no denying that. Malfeasance among parents, among students, there's been more of a spotlight on administrators. You could call it a perfect storm. There's been new leadership coming in and saying this doesn't feel right. To Mark (Emmert's) credit, he's been pretty aggressive in trying to figure out the systemic causes of why we're here.
"I thought the Presidential Retreat, and I've been here 25 years, was one of the most thoughtful, honest conversations about why we got where we are and what we can do about it."